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First Thoughts Blog
Author: Gerrit Dawson, Senior Pastor

Gather In!

The first breath of autumn air has arrived! Midway through the season, it feels like football weather at last. Children have been trick or treating. And Thanksgiving is suddenly near. Songs I’ve known since childhood arise, “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing.” “Come ye thankful people, come, raise the song of harvest home.”  As the year closes, we think about gathering in. Even though winter is not too perilous in the deep south, the homing instinct still rises in us.
 
Not many of us are farmers these days, but it still feels right that at harvest time we think about stewardship.  Gathering in before winter, a family thinks about how to steward their resources through the cold, non-growing months. As Christ’s people, we know that “All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above.”  All we have is from our gracious God, even, no especially, the things we have worked for. It’s God who gave us the strength, the mind and the opportunity to see our labor flourish. So deep in our Biblical spirituality, we know that giving back to God is an essential way we thank God. We make a return to acknowledge the source. We steward what we have received in a way that includes the Lord, his work and his people. 
 
For 190 years, our congregation has profoundly understood this spiritual need to gather in and make return. We get it that our primary worshiping community is the key recipient of our gifts of thankful return to God. That’s why our church speaks of stewardship only briefly each year. That’s why we have only one special offering (at Christmas), knowing that all year long, our regular gifts to the church go to all our church does here, in the community and around the world. 
 
So once a year, I get to remind you, with joy and thanks already in my heart for you, that every gift matters in our church, because we run full out for Christ and his work through FPC. Responsibly, of course, but vigorously.  
 
It’s a HUGE help to our elders if each of us makes our estimate for next year’s giving sooner rather than later. We want to dedicate our estimates of what we plan, and hope, to give to God through our church on November 11 at all three services. Plan now, dear ones, to pray, ponder and act in faith to estimate your 2019 giving this month, so your church can move confidently forward.
 
I love being your pastor!
Gerrit
 
 

Better Like This?

An eye doctor asks this question a million times as we peek through different lenses: better like this? Or like this? The process continues until you find the lenses by which you can see the clearest. The letters on the screen don’t change. Just the lenses by which we view them.
 
There’s just one Jesus. He has made himself known. We don’t get to make him up. But we do get to look at him through different lenses. And in that way see new wonders about him. We get to be surprised and refreshed as Jesus comes into glorious focus when we gaze at him through a biblical lens we may have overlooked.  
 
My passion is to bring Jesus into clear focus for you every week as we study Scripture. In my personal studies over the last half decade, I have been gazing at Jesus through a particular lens and making note of what I see. I have been meditating, researching, pondering and writing about the event in Jesus’ life known as the descent into hell. I have seen some wondrous sights when viewing the story of Jesus this way. His whole story of redemption “pops” with meaning when you see what his final descent meant. 
 
At last, I can share them with you! We’re launching my book: Raising Adam: Why Jesus Descended into Hell. On Sunday, October 14 at 5 pm in the Sanctuary I’ll be doing a presentation on the subject, then we’ll have a book launch party at 6 in the Reception Room. I’m so excited to share these insights into Christ with you and I hope you will help me in spreading the word.
 
Meanwhile, there’s lots of other great stuff going on at your church. We’re finishing our Habitat build. The women are gathering October 6 for a “Day Treat” out at the Boydstun’s farm. The October 23 Gala to support Gardere School will be in the super-cool venue of the new Estuary @ the Water Campus. And on the 28th we’ll have our annual Kirkin’ O’ the Tartans celebration. By then, the weather will have cooled and we’ll be ready for a festive worship service as one congregation.  
 
I love to be your pastor!
 

Back from Sabbatical

It’s great to be back home with you. We are so grateful that you generously gave us this summer as a sabbatical to rest and refuel. The days passed like a wonderful dream as all of our rhythms slowed down. Time enough at last to pray, to read, to walk, to be with family, to see friends, to be together as a couple, and discover that turning 60 is not so bad. I’ve decided to stay young as long as possible. So, thank you! It was also grand to have time to work slowly and deeply on next spring’s Lenten prayer guide. We’ll be delving into the names of Jesus day by day. Finishing touches were also applied to Raising Adam: Why Jesus Descended into Hell. After five years of preparation, it will be a thrill to see it in print this October. 
 
Most encouraging to me was a passion that rose up from the depths: I seriously, madly love to be your pastor and I pray God will give me strength to lead you for years to come. So hang on as you read this issue because there is lots going on.
 
We’re continuing to explore the mystery made known in Paul’s letter to the Colossians. I’m thrilled that our Sunday school children are tracking with the same passages. Nearly 200 folks attended the kick off to our youth program: Paula, Thomas and the youth team already have it in high gear. Our members are providing invaluable support as school begins at Buchanan Elementary and Gardere Community Christian School. Small groups are organizing around town as together we explore the gospel of grace. And soon we’ll all be pulling together to blitz build our sixth Habitat for Humanity home. All that and football season too!  
 
Finally, our heartfelt thanks from Rhonda and me for your great outpouring of support following the death of her brother. How wonderful that it was the same week Caleb Daniel Dawson entered the world. Oh yes, a local grandchild to spoil! 
Glad to be doing life together with you,
 

I'll Be Back!

Ten weeks! That’s a long time. That’s incredibly generous. I’m so very grateful for the sabbatical leave the elders granted me this summer. The plan is to refresh, recharge and get ready for the next seven years of ministry. 
 
You will be in good hands. The “lads” will preach a sermon series on 1 John: Josh, Whitney, Darin and Barry will each take a chapter. In July, we will have one combined service each Sunday at 10.30. Jim will lead off with an important July 1 sermon on faith and the nation. Then we have a series of delightful guest preachers: Derek McCollum, Carmen LaBerge, Ben Cunningham and Alec Flynt will all be holding down the fort. You will be encouraged and challenged, and the time will go by in a blink.
 
I know I can count on each of you to keep our church strong and vibrant during this time. We have an excellent staff and great elders. As I recall, seven years ago when I got back, everything was actually running smoother than before I left! I’m sure the same will be true.
Rhonda and I will be “across the pond” as you read this, taking some time in England and Scotland. Our eldest son Micah and his wife Rachel will be joining us for part of the trip. I’ll also be attending a Torrance Retreat along the shores of Loch Tay. It’s three days of discussing the theology of my treasured mentors with colleagues whom I haven’t seen in years. Call me a pig in theological slop!
The rest of the time we will spend in North Carolina. I hope to do some deep reading on Jesus and the Psalms, pondering how he prayed from the same prayer book we do. Also, I’ve signed up for an online course called Story for Script. John Yorke’s book on story structure has profoundly influenced the way I shape sermons in the last six months. I’m excited for the opportunity to interact with Yorke and other writers about how the deep, basic structure of stories shapes all manner of communication. We’ll be enjoying lots of family time, including the annual celebration of a lot of July birthdays.
 
Truly, we will miss being with you. I am grateful for the opportunity to refresh spiritually without the normal work load, but oh I will miss this congregation I have grown to love so much. Keep us in your prayers and we’ll be back August 5.
 
 

An Indefinable Energy

We had more than 30 folks at our last Discover Class. I love to hear their answers to this question, “What makes a church great?” Contained in that query is an invitation to express what one is looking for and what one has found at First. These answers thrilled me, “An indefinable energy. A feeling of positive excitement. A welcome that is real. An enthusiasm for being there. A true sense of caring.” If that is what new attendees at our church are feeling, then we can truly rejoice at what God has been doing. They describe an intangible that makes all the difference in whether one is attracted or indifferent to what is happening here. Energy. Caring. Welcome. Authenticity. That’s the report of new people who want to be part of what’s happening in this fellowship of believers.
 
That’s wonderful. God is doing it. And you are doing it. The church forms afresh each time we gather. How that gathering feels comes from what each person brings to our assembly. You do that! You show up consistently so that others can count on seeing you. You greet warmly old friends and new faces. You participate robustly in worship. You arrive having decided that this time matters significantly to you and that gets translated to others as the indefinable, but very real, energy of a church that loves Jesus Christ, both his Word and his mission. And of course that’s the gift that these wonderful new members bring to us: their energy, their enthusiasm, their gifting and their desire to participate. We get blessed so richly when we are refreshed by their arrival. I remain so grateful and wonder-struck by the way the heart of this church gets expressed. I love to be your pastor!
 
Future Leaders
 
Our church is blessed to have an endowment that contributes significant funds to our ministry and mission. We’re also blessed to have wise leaders who determine never to use such endowment income for the day-to-day and year-to-year operating of the church—that important responsibility remains with all of us ordinary givers. We use our endowment income to do more, to reach further into the world and to look further into the future toward the next generation of leadership. Our endowment giving supports big projects like Gardere Community Christian School and Church of the Resurrection. We also support students training for ministry as pastors, counselors and church planters. This month the session granted over $78,000 in such scholarships! Would you like to meet the recipients?
 
Rebecca Botros is the daughter of Cynthia and elder Lloyd Lunceford. She grew up in our church and has been full time on the mission field in Lebanon for the past three years. She is pursuing a Master of Divinity at Gordon Conwell.
 
Cheryl Broadnax is a deacon at FPC. She teaches in the elementary Sunday school and serves on the youth committee. She is beginning her third and final year of studies for a Master’s in Counseling and hopes to work with children and youth.
 
Sarah Gastinel is the daughter of FPC members Valerie and Philip Gastinel. She played violin in our acoustic communion service before moving to New Orleans where she led in worship and worked on staff at our church plant, Church of the Resurrection. She now hopes to serve Christ through Christian counseling.
 
Martell Hixon is the third recipient of a Russ Stephenson Scholarship for church planting residency. He will be working under Rev. Richard Rieves at Downtown EPC in Memphis, and has a passion for interracial church planting.  
 
Mary Emeline Rester is the daughter of Rhonda and Gerrit Dawson. She will complete a Master’s in Counseling from RTS Jackson this January and hopes to work in private practice as a marriage and family therapist.
 
Hector Reynoso/Genesis Church. On the far border of our presbytery (and country), in Texas, is Genesis Church, an EPC congregation committed to Latino outreach. Genesis seeks now to construct a building for their growing congregation.
 
Darin Travis is Director of Discipleship at FPC. He is married to Barat and the father of five. He is working on his Master of Divinity degree from RTS and is a candidate for ordination in the EPC. 
 
Josh Woltmann served three summers as our pastoral intern after growing up in our youth group. He expects to complete his Master of Divinity this August and begin an internship at Hope Presbyterian Church in Richmond. Married to FPC member Katy Cosby, Josh is a candidate for EPC ministry.
 

Get Out! Now!

Claustrophobia runs in our family. No room, no air, no way out: it makes us all crazy. Rhonda’s Dad expresses it this way, “I sit on the aisle just in case I need to get out of there.” At a solidly built 6' 6", if Dick had to get out, he would get out. And I’d be right behind him. I just don’t want to be stuck and closed in. 
 
Maybe that’s why I love this Easter sermon so much, even though it’s from 1,500 years ago. The preacher imagines Jesus the moment before his resurrection. He speaks to Adam and all the dead souls who’ve been longing for a Liberator. “Rise! Let us leave this place. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell! Wake up, O sleeper and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” 
 
I just love that line: I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. You were not meant for a claustrophobic doom! You were not designed to languish in bondage to sin, death and misery. Jesus declares, “Jail break! Get up! Get out of here. Now!” 
 
That’s the spiritual heart of the Easter message. Jesus is risen. He defeated death so death doesn’t have to defeat us. He took our sin so we don’t have to live under it. In the risen Jesus, our destiny is life, forgiveness, and transformation. The Easter summons trumpets in our souls: Get up! Get out of there. Rise with Christ!”
 
Congratulations for your hard work pursuing your True Identity in Christ. All Lent you’ve delved deep into Scripture’s teaching about who we really are. And I’m proud of all the comments I’ve read, all the questing questions I’ve heard, and all the growth I’ve seen. Soon, soon, we will celebrate together that Easter means, “My true identity is Risen with Christ!”
 
So how I look forward to celebrating the festive victory of our risen Liberator with you. What a joy to see these faces I have come to know and love so well on that great day. And what a thrill to be able to say together, “He is risen! He is risen indeed!” See you there!
 
Shadows Before the Dawn
 
Of course, our Lenten journey passes first through the dark night of marking Christ’s Thursday betrayal and Friday crucifixion. More and more of us each year mark that holy night by entering the shadows with Jesus. We take communion remembering the first Lord’s Supper. We hear the sacred story dramatically read. We see the candles extinguished and sit silently in the dark of Jesus’ death. We follow him to the tomb and begin the long wait til Easter dawn. Once again we will meet at 7 pm. I’ve got some stirring paintings to show you that take us to the inner meaning in the outer tragedy. See you there!
 
Presbytery
 
At the end of this month, we will be hosting the meeting of Gulf South Presbytery. That’s the association of EPC churches in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas with whom we are affiliated. I’m always so proud when we host anything, but especially when we receive the elders and pastors from around our region. I hope lots of you will step forward to greet, serve and welcome our guests. Yes, it is a matter of pride to me: nobody, but nobody hosts events like we do!
 
You’ll enjoy the meeting too. My dear friend Dr. Dean Weaver will be speaking. He’s the moderator of our General Assembly. We’ll have a joyous celebration worship Friday night at 7. And, oh, you should hear these guys sing. The roof raises! I get to preach about Christ going up to heaven and we all share communion together. It’s the best Friday fun you can have!
 

Ways of Worship: Classic Reformed

I encourage all of our members to become multilingual in worship: to try each of our three services during the course of a year.  
 
Classic Reformed worship draws upon the rich heritage of our  Presbyterian faith as we sing the most vibrant hymns of our tradition, augmented by some of the newer worship songs written in a traditional style. Strings and horns create lush texturing to the majesty of the organ music, and our choir presents weekly anthems which adorn the week’s Scripture passage. Classic Reformed follows the traditional pattern of gathering around the Word, hearing the Word and responding to the Word. This includes twice monthly communion. This service increasingly appeals to a younger generation longing for the depth of an ancient tradition. 
 
The 11 am service fulfills Psalm 145:  
     One generation shall commend your works to another,
            and shall declare your mighty acts.
 

Would You Make This Deal?

It’s an insane trade. A ridiculous switcheroo. A crazy swap. Who would do this?! Trading places with a bum. Switching names with a scoundrel. Taking the stigma of a predator. Asking for the penalty of a felon. Yet the Son of God exchanged identities with us! If you were the righteous and holy One, would you give your place, your prerogatives and privileges to someone like the “you” who is reading this article? No, I wouldn’t it. Not in a million billion years.
 
But Jesus did. He pulled the ultimate identity switch. God made him who knew no sin to be sin. Jesus embraced our lost and forsaken, condemned and hopeless identity as sinners.  All the way to death and hell. So that we could become the righteousness of God. He gives us his identity as beloved Son of God. 
 
This is the heart of the gospel. There is nothing like this anywhere in all the thought and religion of the world. God exchanges identities with us.
 
Beloved, dive into your Lenten guides for week 3 and 4 with all your focus and all your heart. Even if you got behind or didn’t even start, pick up your guide now.  (It’s all on our website.)  Don’t miss church. There is nothing more important than this truth for you, your children, your grandchildren, your parents or your friends. Christ Jesus takes our place and gives us his. The swap of all swaps. Get in on it!
 
News and Notes
 
Your elders recently gathered for a “stay-treat” at the church. We spent nine hours together working through the challenges and opportunities on the horizon for our church. We discussed new procedures and facility changes to enhance safety and security. We discussed the distinctives of our worship services and the kind of leadership we need to exalt Christ and make disciples more effectively. We reviewed the effectiveness of the mission priorities we set in regard to the Gardere Community Christian School and Church of the Resurrection in New Orleans. We rejoiced in the unity of our congregation and drank deep from passages from God’s Word.  You have elected some consecrated, joyful and committed leaders. Great things are ahead.
 
“Give Meaning to Your Spring Cleaning” is the theme for the Purple Cow this month. These thrift stores on Perkins Road and Jones Creek fund the ministry of the Christian Outreach Center downtown.  The dresser I give to Purple Cow translates to training people to get Jobs for Life. The stack of winter sweaters I donate translates to a course in financial literacy for people coming out of addiction treatment or prison terms. The housewares I drop off become food bags for the poor. Like the gospel, that’s a great swap!
 
I love to be your pastor.
 
 

Ways of Worship: Contemporary

Every Sunday, we offer three distinctive styles of worship. The Scripture and message are the same in each service, but the order and music vary. I encourage all of our members to become multilingual in worship: to try each service during the course of a year.  
 
The 9.00 service fulfills Psalm 150:
 
Praise him with trumpet sound;
         praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance;
         praise him with strings and pipe,
  Praise him with sounding cymbals;
         praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that has breath praise the LORD! 
 
A multitude of instruments augments the vibrant singing of both current and treasured worship songs. The atmosphere is the least formal of our services, and the congregation rejoices that every generation is well represented. The robust fellowship creates a wonderful loving atmosphere every Sunday at 9. The congregation communes monthly through the intimacy of forming small groups at the front of the Sanctuary.

Find Out Who You Really Are! An Interview with Gerrit Dawson

Will the church have a special theme for Lent again?  
Yes, we plan to focus on identity. That’s the question of who we most truly are.
 
That’s a hot topic in our culture right now.
There’s a lot of discussion about the power of choice: who do I want to be?
 
And about genetics and predispositions: who must I be?
We plan to take the discussion deeper:  who does God say that I am?
 
How do we find out?
Identity is actually a dominate theme in Scripture. Our God constantly tells his people who they are. They are meant to live from that.
 
How will you approach the identity teaching of the Bible?
For the six weeks of Lent, we’ll look at six key themes. Who am I? Scripture replies that I am:
 
1) Created, Called and Claimed by God
2) Hopelessly Fallen and Mortally Wounded by Sin
3) Utterly Redeemed by Christ
4) Lovingly Adopted into Christ’s own Sonship
5) Daily Dependent on Christ our Life
6) Significantly Sent on Christ’s Mission
 
What’s the one key to this whole identity business?
Here’s the open secret: Jesus is God identifying with us in our lost and forsaken condition. He identifies with us, even unto death, so that he can gather us to himself and enable us to identify with him in sonship with his Father. Our true identity is in Christ. That runs deeper than any genetics, choices or circumstances.
 
How will you invite the congregation to participate?
Once again, we’ll take a three-fold approach.  
 
1) Sunday worship: the messages will focus on the six identity themes.
2) Daily Prayer Guide: everyone will receive a book designed to lead us into 42 days of intense focus on our identity in Christ.
3) Home Groups: studying and discussing together is crucial to recovering our identity in Christ.
 
When does this get started?
Books will be distributed Sunday, February 18 and home groups also begin that week. Group sign ups start February 4.
 
You seem to ask a lot from this congregation!
I do! I have great confidence that our folks will rise to the challenge. I’m asking for 20 minutes a day for 42 days. That’s 14 total hours offered to the Lord as time he can mold us according to his Word. Plus about 9 hours spent in home groups and weekly worship. Of the 1,000 hours we all live during Lent, that’s really pretty reasonable! But more than that, I know our people. We have a hunger for Christ. We’re on a quest to grow closer and closer to him. This is just a great way to pursue Jesus, together.